Category Archives: Behind the Scenes

WHY NICKY MARTIN LOOKS SO FUNNY

Comedy feels a certain way and it looks a certain way. There are not specific parameters which define this but it easily recognized. When you feel something is funny or see something that is funny, you know it. It’s a characteristic older than cinema itself. Before there was sound in films, comedy was more accurately conveyed than any other sentiment. Xing-Mai Deng displays this concept exceedingly well in Andrew Elliott’s “Nicky Martin: Country Superstar.” As a cinematographer with a highly diverse list of award-winning film credits (including this one which received an LAIFF award for Best Comedy/Dramedy and a Jury Award at the Melbourne Indie Film Festival), “Nicky Martin: Country Superstar” is yet another example of Deng’s ability to visually achieve the intent of the writers and directors he works with in an exception manner. With the ubiquity of the pursuit of fame, often via social media these days, the film’s story reveals the all too common hopes of someone who wants to be famous almost solely because they desire fame.

In an ironic turn, this written story necessitated studying reality TV productions in order to accurately be presented with authenticity. The look of the film needed to bring out the absurdity of the story while spoofing the standard reality TV show. The film’s director and Xing-Mai researched several American reality TV shows to study their lighting, framing, and documentary-like camera movement. The blocking and camera angles were all decided before the filming to achieve a deliberate chaotic appearance for the shots.

Much of the look of “Nicky Martin: Country Superstar” required Xing-Mai to use his extensive knowledge and talent to appear as if he did not possess these attributes. It’s an aspect that took him some time with which to relax. Constant second guessing and reassessment of going too far was required. He explains, “I purposely moved the camera in an amateur way in order to make the film look absurd. High-key lighting and amateurish camera movements brought the feel of a valid reality show to our film. There wasn’t any dramatic lighting. The camera movements followed the actors in a passive way rather than anticipating the characters’ actions as compared to a scripted production. We wanted to have the reality TV feeling but we also wanted some cinematic moments in the film. Some of the reality productions I researched were not lit at all. I added contrast for most of the scenes to give a cinematic touch to it but used it sparingly. Most of the reality TV shows I studied were not comedic so the usual reality TV look would not serve ‘Nicky Martin’ as it still desired to look funny. We did not want it to look like normal mockumentary as that look has become fairly common and we wanted something that stood out.”

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The improv nature of the film and the actor’s performances kept Deng on his toes and required a fair amount of improvisation on his own part. As different cast members spontaneously changed and evolved their parts during the actual filming, Xing-Mai was required to essentially collaborate with them in terms of lighting and framing the scene, accepting what he could get away with in terms of these parameters. With knowledge of this potentiality in advance, he created general lighting schemes based on the blocking and devised a plan that would give the widest coverage possible while achieving the largest part of his goal. Because the film is a comedy, Deng used a wide warm color palate.

“Nicky Martin: Country Superstar” is a spoof comedy about a man who wants to be a country music star but doesn’t know how to sing or play guitar. He wants to be a cowboy but he’s afraid of all four-legged animals…so he rides on stools. Upon hearing about a singing contest at the County Fair, Nicky gathers his cohorts and prepares for what he believes is the chance of a lifetime. Numerous efforts towards achieving his goal of becoming a legitimate cowboy fall short. In a scene which drives this failure home and yet endears the audience to his tenacious drive, Nicky and his close friend Mickey reconcile by riding their stools together into the sunset as they have learned that being a cowboy is not about being famous but rather about possessing the cowboy spirit.

Andrew Elliott, the mastermind behind “Nicky Martin: Country Superstar” communicates, “I honestly had always planned to convince Xing-Mai to be the DOP for this film, since it’s very inception. Xing-Mai’s insight was invaluable to the success of the shoot. He was able to quickly and efficiently form a great crew and was always present with ideas and suggestions on how to make thing flow more smoothly. His work ethic was unquestionable on the shoot. Nicky Martin went on to success in the festival scene the following year, winning awards at several of these. Xing-Mai’s understanding of the story and unique ability to shoot the film played an integral part in winning these awards and in the success of the film as a whole.”

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Immersing one’s self in an industry that contains some of the most skilled and creative minds and then attempting to shed the abilities you have come to rely upon as second nature in order to move you forward in said industry is disconcerting at best. Shakespeare often depicted the person who appears as the fool to often be the cleverest of all; communicating the idea that the misdirection of the depth of one’s knowledge and abilities is often the most difficult task of all. In “Nicky Martin: Country Superstar”, Xing-Mai Deng proves that he’s no fool but he knows how to convincingly present the appearance of one to the laughter and enjoyment of his audience…and does so as a master.

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FILMMAKING WITH TALENT AND HEART: ZHENG HUANG

The role of producer is about money and schedules, correct? In its most simplistic terms, yes but it’s also about much more than that. For Zheng Huang it’s about art, personal connection, and the bonds that tie us to each other. While that might sound overly emotional, one should remember that we are dealing with the artist temperament; they are known to investigate feelings. A producer is the boss of a production. Everyone has experienced a boss who is only concerned with the bottom line as well as the one who is interested in you performing your job with excellence because you are happy to be there. Huang is very much the later. Every producer has a budget, schedules, etc., the nuts and bolts of their job. Approaching their role from an emotionally inspiring place is just as vital as a cinematographer who looks for the moving aesthetic in the frame (rather than one who simply makes sure everything is in focus). This approach is as intuitive as breathing for Zheng, which is likely why he has become such a sought after producer. Often the difference between good and great is how much you care; Zheng Huang cares a great deal.

Upon returning for the Cannes Film Festival, where his film “Lost” had been presented, Huang was interviewed about this by Neo. Neo was not only the host of an interview show but is also a director. Neo was instantly appreciative of Zheng’s passion for film and his unique perspective, so much that he enlisted him to take on the role of producer for his film “Never mind I Remember.”

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The film details the plight of a family who is forced to deal with an all too familiar difficulty in life. When seventy-year-old Lily loses her husband Frank to a heart attack, her son Jackie comes to her aid. He discovers very soon that his mother is dealing with a very acute case of Alzheimer’s. While Lily struggles to deal with her own constant sense of disorientation and unfamiliarity with those around her, Jackie comes to terms that he must now be the caretaker for his mother and realizes (perhaps somewhat selfishly) the impact on his own life. While both deal with the loss of Frank, Lily deals with the confusion of why her husband is not with her. The film is acted with mastery and captured with the same level of excellence. In one of the most tender and heart breaking scenes, mother and son find themselves in the same tent they used to play in decades before as Lily asks her son when Frank will return and he replies, “Let’s wait for him together.”

Zheng was drawn to this intensely emotional story by the script as well as a personal connection. He shares, “My mom’s aunt has had Alzheimer’s disease for many years but her only child never comes back home to see her. Luckily, her husband takes care of her very well. Because of genetic inheritance of Alzheimer’s, my own mother worries that one day she will begin to show signs of this disease. I am her only child and she has fears about my being too busy to take care of her properly. When she told me these fears of hers, I realized that this is a very deep and powerful topic, one which I want to explore. The son in the story is MYSELF but also every single child who has a busy career and big ambitions. Alzheimer patients can be a big burden for their children but there is no option here. Our mothers are our caretakers, our protectors from the moment we first come into this world. I directly relate to the story of this film and I know that there are many other people who do also. I knew that I wanted to be a part of telling this story and it demanded to be told with the proper emotional lens.”

The vast majority of a producer’s work for any project is in coordinating and scheduling, there’s no denying this fact. Obtaining permits, scouting locations, casting, “connecting the dots” is the norm for producers in a wide variety of settings. The secret ingredient of Huang’s approach is his focus on the communication and relationships of those he is involved with on each project. Neo, director of “Never mind I remember” reveals, “I feel extremely fortunate to have had such an excellent producer as Zheng Huang on my film.  As we were preparing for the shoot, I was having some problems with my 1st AD. This person has also directed and was giving a great deal of unsolicited opinions about the shot list. When I approached Zheng about the situation he said, ‘Neo, I will always support you whatever the decision you make in the end. If you tell me you will fire the 1st AD one day before shooting, I will be your 1st AD if you need; whatever you need, I’ll be there. The most important thing is: you have to be happy with what you do. You have to create your film, not your 1st AD’s film, or anyone else’s.’ This stirred something in me and I was able to confidently move forward and resolve the issue with my 1st AD, which meant that the entire production would benefit as well. Instances like this prove how Zheng is so much more than your average producer or someone who schedules events.”

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When discussing his definition of a producer, there are many familiar tasks and terms that Huang uses to describe his day to day. There’s a verbiage that he has in common with his peers and then there is one word which he continually refers to that stands out; empathy. It’s not something that you often hear a producer discuss as part of their skill set and yet Zheng professes that it is an essential part of what makes him successful as a producer. For someone who works with artists every day, it seems an obvious trait; to those who work with this producer, it is obviously Zheng Huang.

GORKEM CIFTCI: BEHIND “WOMAN WITH NO VOICE”

Gorkem Ciftci is pleased with himself, not in a smug manner but with a sense of satisfaction that he has made a positive impact. As the Art Director of the campaign “Woman with no Voice” Ciftci conceived of and created a campaign (with his team) to dramatically raise awareness of domestic abuse in his homeland of Turkey. While his vocation most often has him working with clients who are promoting everything from interior design/aesthetics to cars to TV programs, Gorkem has also utilized his talents to promote many socially minded ventures that exist in and border on altruism. The role of art director is itself steeped in both the creative mind and the business sense; it perfectly suits someone like Ciftci who thinks of helping others aspire to a better life and possesses the real world skills to enact this. While this may sound like an extremely benevolent view of those involved in the business/advertising realm, one need only consider Gorkem’s work on “Woman with no Voice” to understand it in a real world application. He passionately explains the situation and his motivation to become involved stating, “The real problem about domestic abuse in Turkey is that nobody is brave enough to speak out. The women who suffer from domestic violence are often economically dependent on their husband; this is why they choose to keep silent and not to talk about it. Silence of the oppressed makes this violent epidemic inevitable. Moreover, in rural parts of Turkey, religion and bigoted traditions contribute significantly to the suffering of women. They are often forced to get married in very early years, very few of them have chance to get education, and they are not really counted as human beings but rather the commodities of men. As a proud feminist, I have been seeking any chance to get involved in campaigns to combat patriarchy in Turkey. And I was fortunate to take part of a few over the course of my career. I knew that this one was going to be the boldest one. I knew from the start.”

This campaign was part of a greater movement named ‘’Every Breath, a Voice’’ that was dedicated to combating and ending domestic violence in Turkey. Numerous campaigns were created and events held annually to raise awareness on the issue. This group wanted a bold and provocative campaign that would spark national debate. As art director, Gorkem wanted to find a unique and dramatic way to convey the idea that the plight of these women was not receiving the attention that it deserved. He explains, “After researching and reading the stories from victims of domestic abuse, I had reached to the conclusion that a single major characteristic of victimized women is their silence, hopelessness in other words. With this focal point, we needed to come up with a creative execution that demonstrates the silence of these victimized women in an interesting and creative way; that execution was to associate this oppression with Facebook’s automatically playing mute videos (Facebook plays videos on mute in order to not disturb users while scrolling down on the newsfeed. This feature has been very significant to the Facebook users).

 

This idea was powerful but also created a major problem for Gorkem. This gravitas of the presentation rested on the idea of silence; if this silence was broken by a voice over it would diminish the power of the visual. The presentation would be decidedly simple. A woman cries out in front of the camera, wearing a plain dark shirt and a wedding ring while standing in front of a dark gray background. The drama is exponentially intensified by Ciftci’s decision to place text in the box to the right of the screen (the voice icon on Facebook video bar) corresponding to the Facebook feature. This communicated the twist that the cries for help from these women are not heard as the viewer attempts to increase the volume of the audio. It cannot be overstated how emotional and heart-wrenching the campaign is (https://vimeo.com/172093012).

Thirty Turkish actresses were viewed to portray this simple yet highly emotive role. The performance of the actress seen in the campaign is haunting, which is appropriate. Far from the glamour and excitement normally associated with being on set, Ciftci relates, “The set suddenly become a dark and depressing place as we began shooting. This was quite surprising for me. Even though we all knew that it was a screenplay, the screams of the actress were something terrible to witness knowing that millions of women suffer domestic abuse and had to face these horrors on daily basis. The original film had no audio, but we had to hear her screams in the studio for the sake of persuasiveness. Witnessing a re-enaction of such horror was upsetting to all on set that day. However, I also knew that this was a powerful cause and could not wait to have the film published so it would start contributing to the positive change.”

A significant difference between the “Woman with no Voice” campaign and those of a similar intention in the past is that the decision to use Facebook and Twitter to share its message resulted in a mass proliferation (via “shares”) and immediately accessible metrics. As opposed to traditional TV or print campaigns in which the public’s reaction is often uncertain, social media allows for immediate responses and feedback, without censorship. As the creators of “Woman with no Voice” had hoped, a national debate was triggered and millions viewed it. One of the most unexpected outcomes of the campaigns viral nature was that men were very eager to talk about the issue and were among the majority of those who “shared” it.

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(CRYSTAL APPLE FESTIVAL AWARD CEREMONY 2015, UNIQISTANBUL, ISTANBUL)

“Woman with no Voice” was overwhelmingly accepted and praised by the public. In addition, it received copious accolades that included: 1x Gold, 1x Silver, 1x Bronze at Crystal Apple Festival of Creativity (2015), 1x Gold Mixx Awards Turkey (2016), 1x Bronze Mixx Awards Europe (2016),
& 1x Gold, 1x Merit at Kırmızı Advertising Awards (2015). While awards always have a beneficial effect on a professional’s career, Gorkem states, “My involvement with this campaign truly deepened my understanding that I could use my role as an art director to really make a change. I think if we all found ways to use the abilities we have to help others rather than only to support ourselves, the world would be a much better place for everyone. I am humbled that I was able to do even a little bit to help the women of my country and I’ll be looking for opportunities in the future to do more.”

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(KIRMIZI AD SHOW 2016, ZORLU PERFORMANCE HALL, ISTANBUL)

 

DIRECTOR ALEXANDRA LA ROCHE ON HAVING FUN WITH EUREKA

Science and Tech nerds are the new rockstars. There was a time when the brains behind these types of advancements were kept hidden away while the powers that be put a public face on those they deemed marketable. Carl Sagan, Steve Jobs, and many others completely changed that. Sci-Fi Channel’s “Eureka” presented the idea of an entire community of these brilliant minds. The Emmy nominated and Leo award-winning TV show was a ratings hit during its six year run as one of Sci Fi’s highest rated series. One of the brilliant minds behind the scenes of “Eureka” was director Alexandra La Roche. The writers of the series are self-proclaimed science geeks who structured many of their themes on real or postulated science. This coupled with the show’s heavy oversight by actual science consultants not only informed La Roche but required her to be on her toes. In contrast to the normal greed, sex, and ensuing power struggle, “Eureka” episodes presented conflict of a more cerebral nature. Alexandra concedes that it’s one of the most unusual and fun shows she has ever directed precisely due to this aspect.

“Eureka” is the story of a scientific community, in large part based on the perspective of the town’s sheriff Jack Carter. Carter cooperates with scientific geniuses in the community who work for Global Dynamics. They often find approaches to resolving situations that require more cerebral effort than “stop in the name of the law.” A perfect example of this is “Up in the air.” This episode was based on the opening sequence of the show which depicts the town floating away as the Sheriff watches. The opening had never been explored as a story before. What seemingly starts out as a normal bank robbery quickly became a situation in which the entire bank had been taken, the whole building! An element of the Higgs Bosen (based on real science) has been stored in the bank and somehow is effecting everything in the town. Carter is tasked with having to get the element contained and bring everything back to earth. Unfortunately, the bank is floating 4 miles above the earth and nothing can fly him there. He does make it, but the bank is on a terrible tilt and when he does get the element contained, the bank starts to plummet, listing back and forth and sending him in all directions with amazing physical comedy from Carter, played by Colin Ferguson. The day is saved at the last minute and order is restored. Even though “Up in the air” employed extensive use of VFX and filming trickery to make the scenes believable, Alexandra believes that the performances of the actors are the cornerstone to any production. For this particular episode, the physical comedy performed by Colin Ferguson (starring as sheriff Jack Carter) due to the gravity challenged nature of the situation was a high note (no pun intended). On working with La Roche, Ferguson proclaims, “Alexandra is one of, if not the best, director I have ever worked with.
I think it is fair to say that I have a deep understanding and appreciation for Alexandra’s talent. When we worked together, we worked in tandem to improve, correct, defend, and in short, save eighty plus hours of television from lesser hands than hers. She has the rare ability to follow the story, hear the actors, know the technical, and bring it all together in a manner that gets better, quantifiable results, faster than most, and in the form that others only dream they could achieve. This is exceptional. She always helped. She was never wrong. Not once. Our show had the quality that it did because of Alexandra La Roche. When I am asked by someone which episodes to watch to see if they will like I show I always say ‘Up in the Air’ or ‘Smarter Carter’, both of which are Alexandra’s episodes. She is an ally, she is a friend and she is someone I will always look up to.” Perhaps the reason that Alexandra is so respected and appreciated by the actors she works with is due to her honesty with them. She stipulates, “I had an excellent rapport with all the actors on ‘Eureka.’ Our deal was simple; I did not lie. If Colin wanted an honest opinion, he knew he would get it from me. Actors are so used to smoke being blown up their asses, they were really quite happy for me to say what I really thought. Of course, I never approach any situation with a negative. If I see a problem, I only mention it if I have a solution or proposal on how to solve it. This is what I know endeared me to the entire cast, with a particularly close working relationship with Colin as he trusted me implicitly.”

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One of La Roche’s favorite experiences directing for Eureka was the episode “Smarter Carter.” It combined many of the elements that were so endearing about the series: science, VFX, and comedic performances. A confrontation between sheriff Carter and two disembodied legs in the town square was a scene which Alexandra had conceived of herself. Kevin Blake (played by Trevor Jackson) and the sheriff square off with the legs in an attempt to capture them. The director describes, “It was written as a simple chase through the town square ending in a crash into the café patio. Parkour was just getting really popular so I expanded the scene and created a sequence where the legs jump, leap, and hang all over the town square ending up with Carter pinned in a head lock. This was a massive sequence and I had to call out to the actors every beat and every move because the legs were all CGI.  I had no voice left by lunch!! We had to use green screen elements as well. It took 7 hours to shoot, but it was a great scene, very funny and well worth it.” These situations give evidence that La Roche had a deep understanding of the personality the producers wanted “Eureka” to project. While executing these scenes can be taxing and stressful, the final result was well worth it. Screen Shot 2017-06-26 at 8.58.16 AM

While “Eureka” left a lasting impression on its fans and science nerds everywhere, the road is two-way. Alexandra admits that to this day that she gravitates towards science magazines on plane rides and whenever she has free time. The experience working on “Eureka” led not only to many more professional opportunities (La Roche has directed CW’s “Flash”, USA network’s “Dead Zone”, and many others) but left her with a lifelong interest in science. Sometimes the conduit for learning resides in unobvious means.

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CINEMATOGRAPHER SHOWS BOTH SIDES AT THE SAME TIME IN PARENT, TEACHER

Chris Lew is someone who enjoys learning. Though he has served on numerous productions as Cinematographer, he is adamant that being creative is not about being comfortable. Anyone who pursues growth comes to the realization that growth only comes about through tension, stress, and (hopefully) release. He accepted the DP position on the film “Parent, Teacher” with the understanding that it would be difficult in a number of ways for him. What he had not expected was that this would be his closest foray into actually becoming a passive actor in a film. It’s an interesting and unusual experience that began when the film’s writer/director Roman Tchjen approached Chris to be the DP for this tense film.

“Parent, Teacher” tells a story that is not completely unheard of. What it does so ingeniously is to communicate the emotional temperature of a room during a stressful situation. In “Parent, Teacher”, a father meets with his son’s teacher after school when his son is accused of attacking a classmate. Who is right and wrong in the situation becomes increasingly harder to define as the father and teacher argue their beliefs.

Roman Tchjen has a long history of collaborating with Lew, creating a high level of trust and understanding between them. When Tchjen wanted to present a story in a very non-traditional manner, he was firm about the need for Chris’s involvement. While most films display the commonly used and accepted approach: shooting coverage, having a protagonist with a clear goal, a clear villain whom the hero must overcome etc., Roman wanted to create something that was more honest and lacked a clear answer because in real life these types of issues aren’t black and white. Going into the film, Lew and Roman made the commitment to have as few cuts as possible. The entire film was to be split it into two takes, foregoing any coverage, any establishing shots, or cut aways. This is the cinematography equivalent of riding a bull at the rodeo while being handcuffed from behind. All of the “go to” tropes of a DP were stripped away leaving Lew to formulate an approach that would still stimulate and entice the viewer. Chris communicates, “We focused solely on the performance and the conflict between these two people. This goes back to taking risks. After reading the script I knew it wasn’t written to be the most visually stimulating film so rather than making the visuals flashy, which Roman really didn’t want, I instead thought of ways to make it immersive and use that to make the film engaging and interesting. It was this approach that contributed to the decision to shoot extremely long takes. It took a lot of work for Roman and even more so for the actors. There were many sessions leading up the shoot where everyone practiced their lines. Once they were feeling comfortable, I came in for my own rehearsal to see how we could block the camera. I needed to know at what point I was going to be on each character and if we were going to see some lines spoken on camera or off screen. Making sure I was on the right actor for an expression was key too. It was a lot like a dance that the actors and I were doing together!”

A reason for which Roman was so insistent concerning Lew coming aboard as DP was due to his style. Just as director’s have a signature which leads many to hire them, Lew has been recognized for his ability to enable the audience to have an intimate experience via his choices and camera work. It appears effortless for Chris to make the camera unnoticed in any way and at the same time pick up every nuance in the actors faces. The question of how does the action on screen affect how much the camera moves really comes down to the content. Film is art and art is subjective. For Lew it comes down to the content of the scene and the emotion the he and the director want to convey.

“Parent, Teacher” required extensive preproduction for Chris which is very atypical for a DP. The story and the unique approach necessitated Lew being there for rehearsals. Because the camera essentially appears as a mute third party witness, Lew needed to almost “perform” as another participant in the scene. Every project prior to this one had this DP engaging in the typical method of planning the scenes out based on the locations with the director as they reviewed photos. By contrast, in this production the camera was very much a character in itself, with blocking and queues that needed to be timed down to lines. If Lew and Tchjen wanted the film to feel completely out of the norm they were going to have to start with this beginning stage. Long takes helped with this. When the father first walks into the classroom at the beginning of “Parent, Teacher”, the camera follows him in but then hangs back as he walks over to the teacher to shake her hand and sit down. This was the wide establishing two shot to set the scene. As the teacher starts to explain what had happened, the camera begins to slowly creep in. Lew’s advance is so slow and subtle that you don’t even notice as he moves in to a close up. Chris describes, “Eventually we’re out of the two shot and just on the father when he starts to explain that he doesn’t see anything wrong with his son’s actions. I wanted to isolate him in the frame at this point to represent that he is in his own world. He’s clearly an immigrant and not used to Western ways of handling situations of violence. The teacher becomes increasingly frustrated as the two cannot agree on what is right and wrong, all the while the camera is slowly getting closer and closer. I tried to hide the walk in with the camera panning back and forth between each character. Just before the climax of the argument, the father has given up and is lashing out at the teacher, feeling targeted and attacked for his beliefs. Here, the front of the lens is inches away from the actor’s face. You see every detail of his expression and all the frustration in his eyes before he jumps up away from camera breaking the tension. Essentially I wanted the entire conversation to be one slow, imperceptible push in that brings the audience closer as the tension rises.”

Chris felt the camera needed to be handheld to create this immersive feeling, to make the audience feel like another person in the scene. It was a decision that Chris would have regreted if not fully committed to achieving the goals he had set for this film. The challenge was the length of the takes and the physically demanding nature of the equipment he chose. “Parent, Teacher” was shot using the Alexa XT which is a large, heavy camera. Hand holding it, trying to keep the frame steady for such long takes is extremely difficult.

Producer Kegan Sant admits to being overwhelmed upon seeing the final product. He declares, “When you are in preproduction of a film you have a vision in your mind of what you hope it will look like. I can honestly say that the idea I had for ‘Parent, Teacher’ pales in comparison to what you see when viewing it. Christopher was essential to the way in which the story was presented to our audiences. His incredibly striking camera work and expert understanding of shadow and lighting allowed for the film to reach impressive narrative heights. The way in which he reflects the overall despair and confusion of our main character throughout the frames is what makes Christopher such a valuable asset to any production that seeks out his talent. His efforts throughout the film solidified the film’s high standing and reception. We would not have received the same overwhelmingly positive reaction without his talent as cinematographer.”

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Chris Lew admits that his work on set left him consistently soaked in sweat from long takes wielding a heavy camera. However, he also admits that taking a risk and trying to create a film which stands apart from the norm is something that he will hold onto much longer than an aching back or sore arms.

JUN XIA MANIFEST THE VISION OF “SHE GIVES ME SIGHT”

In spite of what the tabloids would have you believe, filmmaking is a team effort. While directors and actors are the faces of this mode of entertainment, the success of each production owes just as much to the talented professionals who perform their feats of magic and ability behind the camera. Think of it like this; if you order a fantastic meal but it isn’t handled properly or delivered properly…then it’s no good to you. Those whom the public never sees are as responsible for the gripping and endearing stories that we all love just as much as the marquee names we all know. Jun Xia may not be a household name but this editor is widely known and respected in the film industry. His editing has enabled the stories of fright (as in “Emily” and “Inside Linda Vista Hospital”), the touching stories of love and love lost (in “The Good Memory”), and of perseverance and the human spirit in “She Gives Me Sight.” This story of a young blind boy who is given a gift stronger than that of sight by a loving family member is the type of inspirational film that simultaneously evokes tears and admiration. Honored with multiple awards (at the Hollywood Boulevard Film Festival, Love Shorts Film Festival, LA underground Film Festival, and many others), “She Gives Me Sight” has a distinct pacing that is the result of Xia’s collaboration and planning with director Jiping Liu. When viewing the film, it is apparent that this approach is a major part of how the story is delivered and thus a result of its recognition in the film community.

“She Gives Me Sight” is a story about a little boy named Cecil whose life is full of bullying and darkness. Cecil was blinded in an accident and now lives with his grandmother in a small town. His only playground is the front yard of the old house in which they live. After little Cecil lost his sight, his grandmother decides to give Cecil love and light. Rather than treating him gently or with sympathy, she treats him more strictly than before. She continually asks him to help with simple housework. The neighborhood kids laugh at Cecil and taunt him. Although his grandmother is a witness to all of this, she doesn’t say anything about it. When a mishap occurs during these common house chores, Cecil breaks down. He is astonished that his grandmother does not take his situation into consideration and treat him differently than before he lost his sight. That night, she tells Cecil a bedtime story about a rose and a butterfly and how the rose promises to fight against the wind and keep blooming. Cecil dreams that night and understand that the story is about him and the rose’s story is his own. Three years later, Cecil became a successful author and writing a book named She Gives Me Sight about his childhood, and thanks his grandmother for teaching him to persevere and find his own way.

Because such a vast amount of the story is driven by narration and dialogue, Jun had copious discussions with the film’s director Jiping Liu in regards to how the editing might add to the story’s action. It was Xia’s contention that if the film were edited in exact correlation with the script, it would not achieve its full potential. In his mind, there was more happening in this story than what was directly stated. He explains his approach commenting, “I used the method of Parallel Montage in the film. I created it on the basis of a lot of dialogue and narration of the film, which made the overall movie more interesting. In this film, when the grandmother reads,  coaxing the blind boy to sleep, the imagination in the blind little boy’s mind, the imagination of him in childhood, and in the period of growing up were interspersed with editing. In addition, the things that occurred at different times and locations were edited together, which made the rhythm of this story more compact.”

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Jiping concedes, “Jun is a very smart when it comes to filmmaking, especially for editing. His approach is always well thought out and is about serving the message of the film. It was a great experience to work with such a fantastic film editor. Jun agrees noting, “I can’t overstate how important I feel that it is to be a modest filmmaker and editor. Receiving advice from others whom I respect about my own editing methods will only lead to increasing the integrity of the film.”

While a plethora of awards, nominations, and “official selection” accolades point to the widespread recognition of “She Gives Me Sight” by the film community, it’s the power that the film has on the individual when viewed that reveals its true impact. The film’s tone creates such a strong connection between the audience and young Cecil that it is almost unfathomable to think of its presentation as any other way. What Jun Xia and Jiping Liu created together is a moving and epic story of love overcoming life’s harsh blows. The rose that defies the wind can be found inside any of us; Jun Xia made certain that all viewers understand this lesson.

20 QUESTIONS WITH WRITER SARAH WALTON

You write films which present the plight of modern romance. How does romance differ today from the romantic films of your childhood?

Classic 80’s rom coms like Overboard and Housesitter were much soppier than most modern rom coms. They were more fantasy based, more farcical, over the top and fun. I think audiences found corniness more palatable back in the 80’s.

In the 90’s rom coms became more realistic, more drama based rom coms like Sliding Doors and 40 days and 40 nights, high concept ideas based in reality.  Now rom coms are often quite reality based like He’s Just Not That Into You and Bridget Jones’s Dairy.  Personally I love them all, but I have to admit I’ve not seen many Woody Allen rom coms. They feel too gritty for me, but I know I shouldn’t knock it till I try it!

It feels as if society is slowly becoming more accustomed to violence and graphic, sometimes aggressive sex scenes and becoming less comfortable with cheesy love stories and romance.  I don’t know who decided it was “uncool” to like romantic comedies – I imagine someone or more likely, a group of people who had been through a lot of pain and were angry at the world.  It seems audiences are more comfortable seeing character get slaughtered on screen than they are with seeing true intimacy.  Love definitely feels more natural to me than violence and I’m passionate about making more corny lovey dovey content to counteract the violence and hate spreading like a disease in the world.  Romantic comedies have the power to remind us of the love inside of us.

What is it about romantic comedies that appeals to your sensibilities as a writer? 

Rom coms appeal to me because I’ve always been obsessed with love. I’ve been so fascinated by observing and experiencing the power of love and how it transforms people and their behavior.  I didn’t start out writing rom coms.  I fell for the mainstream view that rom coms were “uncool” and although I loved them I stayed quiet about it.  In the industry they’re most often not taken “seriously” – certainly in Australia – They don’t usually win Academy Awards (although that seems to be shifting). In my 20’s when I was an actor/writer I was the epitome of a tortured artist, I smoked cigarettes, drank too much alcohol, I fit the Hemingway stereotype perfectly. The first feature I wrote wasn’t a romantic comedy and it was horrendous. I was trying too hard to be clever. It wasn’t coming from the right place. It was coming from my head instead of my heart. I threw it all in and decided to write something fun instead – a film I wanted to watch, which I admitted to myself was a cheesy romantic comedy set in my two favorite places – a tropical island and NYC!

As I matured and I cared less and less what other people thought I began to speak my truth.  I decided to do the seemingly impossible, the unheard of, the bravest thing a filmmaker can do – come out of the romantic comedy closet and admit my love for them once and for all! And not just cool Woody Allen rom coms, but the cheesy, soppy ones that make people gag.  It was a shaky road, initially I was embarrassed, but once I embraced my true self as a corny rom com lover and expressed my passion for rom coms with conviction, I found that other people came out of the woodwork and admitted their secret rom com love.  I once dated a guy who lived in a sharehouse with a group of guys who had what they called “Rom com Sunday”! They’d all huddle around the TV nursing hangovers and watching their favorite rom coms (and no, they weren’t gay! I can vouch for that!). Some people have told me I inspired them to uncover the love from rom coms they never realized they had or were too embarrassed to admit. It’s a pretty liberating experience that I’d highly recommend 😉  Rom coms being “uncool” is kind of ridiculous, but what’s more ridiculous is caring whether people think we’re cool after we leave high school. 

Different cultures have their own perspectives on romance. How would you describe your Australian homeland’s unique sensibilities towards romance?

Australian romance can be pretty pathetic. In Australia, the sophisticated method by which a man lets you know he likes you is usually by ignoring you or teasing you.  I recently wrote the joke “You know you’re a true blue Aussie when”: 1. You understand the importance of vegemite to butter ratio; 2. You only know the first 2 verses of The Australian Anthem. 3. You call your best mate dickhead.  Excuse my French there, but you get the point.  Banter is a huge part of the Australian culture.  What we call “giving each other shit” is an endearing process by which us outback simpletons bond.  I lived in London in my 20’s and my experience dating there was that this culture comes from our British roots. Men in London were even more reserved. I find in the US and Europe men are more forthright in asking you out. This was such a novelty for me at first, I loved the confidence and straight shooter method, but at the end of the day I feel that in all cultures there’s too much emphasis on the initial “wooing” period at the beginning of dating which can be fun if you’re just dating around for the experience, but essentially it’s kind of empty and fabricated.  I find when people stop playing games and trying to be something they’re not and really get to know each other as friends, they’re more likely to find a compatible match and then from there true romance and love blossoms and flourishes.

As a screenwriter who lives in Hollywood and is female, you have a very authentic voice for the types of films you create. What responsibility do you feel to your audience in regards to creating films that are based in reality? 

I feel my responsibility is to create more female driven stories as well as smash stereotypes and challenge old unhealthy relationship paradigms. I don’t know about making sure that the films are based in reality, as I like a good farcical rom com that’s more fantasy based. I think it’s important to laugh as dysfunctional relationship patterns if I portray them in films, but I’m conscious not to encourage dysfunctional relationship patterns or promote them as healthy.  At times I’ve taken my responsibility as a writer and filmmaker too seriously and lost the true goal of rom coms for me which is to laugh at our pain and to enjoy the ride and experience love and joy myself within the process – basically to have fun! When I’ve agonized over the kind of messages my films are sending I’ve ended up writing preachy material and losing my true intention.  If I stay centered in my intention to tell stories from love about love, I find that’s when my best work comes through.  When I’m in my head I’m coming from my ego and my writing begins to feel fabricated.

I do take integrity seriously though. It’s important for me to not be swayed by external influences that focus purely on making money.  I have no problem with making money – in fact making money is good – it’s how we make more films – but I’m conscious of staying true to the heart of the story and making sure it isn’t lost in the process. This is where it’s important to have strong instincts and learn when to compromise and when to stick to your guns.

I think that the lasting effects that films have on audiences emotionally is largely neglected.  There have been many studies on the neuroscience of how film affects our brain and emotions, but it doesn’t take a neuroscientist to observe the effect the media has on our mind and our emotions.  We can experience these effects ourselves simply by observing the way commercials affect us and get into our heads. I don’t know about you, but a commercial has the power to make me cry or crave a chocolate bar so bad that I’ll be sure to eat one after I’ve been exposed to a luring commercial.  The amount of money spent on Super Bowl commercials is ludicrous and speaks to the power of the moving image on our sensibilities.  In the same way that I’m conscious about what food I feed my body, I’m conscious of what I feed my mind – the amount of negative images I expose my mind to.  I rarely watch television and I almost never watch the news.

It’s undeniable that we’re influenced by our environment- thought processes, images, sounds are all embedded in our mind when we’re exposed to them. When we’re repeatedly exposed to a succession of images, we feel the emotional effects this can have an impact on our daily lives and how we interact with others. This is why I’m so passionate about making more films that evoke and spread love, laughter and joy and remind and encourage people to live from their hearts. 

For the film JUMP, an original soundtrack was written that was inspired by 80’s music, as was the tone of the film. What do you love so much about the 80’s and what is it about this era that infers lighthearted fun? 

The 80’s music and films represent the heart and joy of our inner child. It’s fun, lighthearted and most often about love, dance and enjoying life – “dancing in the street”, “dancing in heaven”, “girls just want to have fun” …  you know how it goes.  I grew up listening to love song dedications – songs that come from love have always resonated with me.  In saying that I feel the same euphoric rush, the same joy in my heart when I listen to Linkin Park music as I do when I listen to Whitney Houston belt out a tune. Punk, rock and sometimes even heavy metal music also speaks to my heart. I think it’s about the space the artist was in when they performed the piece of music – I can feel their intention if it comes from love then it doesn’t matter whether it’s rock, pop or country music. 

The main character in JUMP is a 37-year old secretary who manifests her own release from an ordinary life. Presenting a female lead in her late 30’s is (sadly) far from the norm for Hollywood films these days. What inspired you to present Melody at this stage of her life for this film? 

Melody’s age was the most important part of the film for me.  To portray a character who is considered in society “old” as not only facing her fears, taking a risk and chasing her dreams at the age of 37, but also the fact that the odds are stacked against her in terms of being paired with her worst nightmare dance partner who exacerbates her “Stiff Leg Syndrome”. I’m incredibly passionate about shattering ageist attitudes.  Growing old is a beautiful process – ageing should be celebrated! I’m becoming fitter, healthier, more active as I’m getting older and continuing to push myself outside my comfort zone is an important part of growth.  If we’re not growing, we’re not really living.  Life is growth. If we don’t continue to grow we turn into rocks. No one wants to be a rock. 

The Dating Ring is a film in which you had the male and female leads presented in an emotional role reversal.  Are you constantly looking for new ways such as this to twist the romantic comedy template and how difficult is this to achieve? 

Yes, I love exploring gender role reversal and smashing stereotypes.

Although I still relate to the basic ideals I tend to have different views and opinions to mainstream society – tend to naturally think outside the box, so I don’t find it difficult to come up with new ways to twist the rom com template. It’s just the way I think.

In my experience there’s a different kind of love that’s largely neglected in romantic comedies that I’m excited to delve into in my films – what’s most commonly known as true friendship love or unconditional love.  I feel the current definition of romance is false, fleeting, lacks substance if it’s not grounded in true love.  What is romance with someone you don’t really know yet? You get swept up in the romance, but then once that fades away and you get to know the person you may realize you’re not compatible.  Romance without truly getting to know someone is like coloring your hair. At first it looks luscious and shiny, but eventually it fades and your turn colors show you can keep putting dye in your hair and each time it glows again, but after time your hair becomes brittle or the dye builds up and you have to keep treating it.  It’s a lot of work.  Why not just enjoy your hair in its natural state? Why not just be yourself when you’re first getting to know someone and then once you know you’re a good match, let the romance develop naturally from there.

I’d go even further to question the way we perceive the “opposite sex” in terms of attraction and how it can steer us away from creating deeper stronger bonds and platonic friendships with each other.  What if when we had children we didn’t’ tease them when they had a friend of the “opposite sex”.  What if we refrained from saying “oooh is that your girlfriend?” – or is that just me?  It’s harmless and well-intended, but what if from a young age we encouraged kids to see the other gender as equals – as mates.  Relationships based on a foundation of friendship are more likely to last and to grow unconditional love filled with respect and void of fear based love which includes jealousy, control and insecurity. 

Hollywood is still the biggest producer of films in the world. What are the challenges in this modern era for a writer in this current time here in Hollywood? 

I don’t see challenges as a bad thing, it’s an opportunity to adapt and grow. The addition of platforms like Hulu, Netflix etc. is definitely changing the game, there’s definitely a plethora of content being made and it seems there’s more opportunity to get alternative stories made, as these platforms are open to a wider range of ideas and concepts rather than being restricted by the constructs that the bigger channels and studios adhere to.

What’s the average daily routine for a screenwriter like yourself in Hollywood?

Everyone has a different process. I know some writers write for 4-6 hours a day while some write for 2 hours in the morning or late at night. Some work for 8-10 hour days. It depends on the individual. For me it varies. I can work for long periods without a break, but I can also work really well on short spurts.

You present romance and comedy in your screenplays. What is it about the blending of these two genres that works so well and has become such a popular combination? 

Romantic comedies are love and laughter – love and laughter are the two most powerful forces in human nature.

One of my favorite Gandhi quotes speaks to the power of love: “When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it–always.”

There’s still an overhang of an old perspective that hate and anger are power and that love, vulnerability, kindness and compassion are weak. The truth is the opposite. It’s much harder to be kind in the face of aggression than to bite back. True strength is love and I think people connect to this truth in a good romantic comedy.

Laughter is the most positive and powerful human expression of joy and happiness and can be medicinal in its effects.

Crying as an expression of sadness is an important element in the therapeutic effects of film. Repressed sadness is what causes anger, bitterness, resentment and can lead to damaging behavior. Crying as relief is incredibly transformative and can allow the audience to connect with a film on a deeper level.  

How important are romance and comedy to you in your personal relationships? 

Imperative. I love to laugh – I laugh at everything. I can’t have people in my life who don’t make me laugh. But seeing as most people make me laugh, I’m an easy audience. Romance to me means open, regular expressions of love which is one of my favorite things to do. I do it to people I don’t know that well and sometimes strangers which can be awkward, but fun, funny and incredibly rewarding. I much prefer a card with a meaningful message or a cheap thoughtful present than an expensive gift. I guess I see romance as kindness in a way. Random acts of romance should be a thing.  I think because I do it often it comes back to me tenfold. Recently I was having a bad day and I went out for ice cream with a beautiful friend who encouraged me to “let it out” and cry (in public!) and a kind stranger came up to me, opened his arms out and hugged me. We were in Venice, so I thought he was a tree hugging hippy (I hang out in these circles sometimes, so I get it) but it turned out that the stranger was the director of one of my all-time favorite romantic comedies and now we’re friends. 

Are most of your moments of genius (in screenplays) the result of personal experience or imagined experiences? In other words, how much of your writing is based out of first hand experiences? 

My favorite moments in my films spring from a fusion of real life and being connected to the present moment – usually after or during meditation, listening to music, an inspiring conversation or exercise.  I have a vivid imagination and a tendency for exaggeration which bodes me well in comedy, but the best comedy for me comes from the truth and organic moments that pop out in presence.

Studying The Meisner Technique for 3 years as an actress I developed an obsession for organic moments – the magical moments that shoot out of us like lava when we’re in the present moment.  These are gold for both performance and writing.  This is also why I love improv. I like to use improv to help inspire ideas as well as when I direct or perform.

Real life is a huge influence on my work – like all writers I observe and soak up my environment like a sponge.  I see the beauty in everyone, I see peoples pain, their joy, their hidden emotions and stories – sometimes I feel I can see through people – that sounds creepy, but you know what I mean. Don’t you? 

Do you consider the films which you write to be therapy for the audience or how to” instruction?

I see my films as relief – escape from daily life. Have a laugh, take a load off. Laugh at our pain – therapy in that sense.  Laughter and tears are very therapeutic and a good romantic comedy will do both.

Most rom coms shouldn’t be modelled as a how to… more like how not to.  Sex and The City modelled and promoted dysfunctional relationships by making a fairytale out of Carrie and Big’s romance.  There she was, an intelligent, successful, beautiful woman with a group of good friends – a strong support system who chose to be with a man who disrespected her and strung her along for 10 years and left her broken hearted time after time – even on the alter.  This is the kind of love that happen when we don’t have a strong sense of self-worth. 

How does a screenwriter like yourself find romance in Hollywood while pursuing a career in such a difficult field? 

I don’t. Just kidding. I have incredibly fulfilling and nourishing relationships with friends and family.  I’m not interested in the traditional or modern dating structure – I did it to death in my 20’s and it was fun – and then it was painful, and now I’m done with that.

What is the DNA of a great romantic comedy? i.e. the required traits. 

The formula for a great romantic comedy is love plus laughter equals joy. A rom com needs to be relateable even if it’s a fantasy based rom com, there needs to be an element of truth.

I’m interested in exploring a different definition of romance than our current understanding of it in mainstream society. I believe romance should come later rather than at the beginning.  It should start slow and increase as your relationship develops.  The current model shows and abundance of romance in the first couple of months or the “honeymoon period” and then once there’s commitment and safety often people get complacent and the romance fades.  Id’ like to see that turned around. This would make for a long term sustained relationship full of romance.  A higher love is achieved when two people love themselves fully and don’t need or expect the other person to make them happy.  They take full responsibility for their own happiness and merely join together with someone else who is whole and complete.

I’ve fallen into the expectation trap in past relationship, but when I took a 2 year break from dating and focused on me I noticed the ebb and flow of emotion, joy, and love within me and it became clear when I was going through challenges that it came from me – when I no longer had someone else to blame! These themes that surround love are what I’m fascinated in examining further and portraying in my films. 

What film did you not write but wish that you had and why? 

Disney’s Enchanted because it’s a magical fantastical musical with a message of love and believing in wonder and the good in people.  I write music into my films and there’s usually at least one scene where characters sing and/or dance, but I’m yet to make a musical feature. I write songs, so it will happen one day in the not too distant future. 

Describe your idea of a nightmare writing assignment for a film idea. 

Anything on violence or an empty sexualized rom com focused on aesthetics – anything that would contribute to the negative body image content that we already have an abundance of.  Many films are highly sexualized these days – they focus on physical attraction and base the development of love form this foundation of initial attraction or chemistry.   The problem with this is that it fades, it’s not sustainable long terms.  Societies obsession with image breeds insecurity competition and fear which are not compatible with true love which is ultimately what people are searching for whether they admit it or are aware of it or not and what compels people to watch romantic comedies. Enjoying fashion, beauty etc. is totally healthy, it’s the relationship we have with it – when we gain our sense of self and our worthiness from image that’s when we can run into problems. The paradigm – this obsession with superficiality – is flawed and perpetuates itself in a cycle of destruction. 

What is the most avoided topic in romantic comedy films and why? 

I don’t know if there are many avoided topics in rom coms these days. Pretty much anything goes. You hear to steer clear of religion and politics, but I’ve seen some of the best comedic moments on these topics. 

You’re obviously a very creative person; how do you maintain that constant flow of creative ideas over an entire career? What is your personal means for doing this?

 Mediation, yoga, dance, running and spending time with good friends is usually the best inspiration for me as a writer.  The heather and happier I am in myself and my life the more creative ideas flow through me.  I’ve found I’ve still managed to churn out decent work when I’ve been stressed and overworked, but it’s less enjoyable, so I prefer the healthy, happy method!

 Finish this sentence; the best thing about Sarah Walton is….

 Can I say for me what the best thing about “being” Sarah Walton is?

For me it’s that I love everyone and this brings me so much love and joy. It’s not that I don’t find people challenging like everyone else, but I always find a way to connect to empathy and love people regardless of what behavior they display. I see people as who they truly are, not their behavior. My upbringing gave me many gifts, but the one I’m most grateful for is having parents that are so different. My father was brought up in a poorer, small town non-religious family with 11 children while my mother was brought up in a fairly well off suburban catholic family.  This polarity allowed me to relate to a wide range of people. I grew up camping and staying in fancy hotels, so I appreciate the beauty in simplicity while also enjoying the glamorous lifestyle without placing any importance on the superficiality of material things.  I was also blessed with enough make or break me challenges in my life to force me to discover self-development and well-being practices that have changed my life dramatically and lead me to explore new ways to find happiness, love and joy in life regardless of external circumstances. It’s an ongoing process and sometimes I’m like – I’m done! I want to go back to how I was before, ignorance is bliss! – but I know it’s not and I’ve found ways of achieving natural highs through dance, meditation, yoga, laughter etc. which is a pretty good incentive to stay on this path!

Bonus:

Finally, what do other writers say about you when you are not listening?

What others say about me is not really any of my business, but I know sometimes people comment on how cheesy and mainstream my work is thinking that it’s an insult, when for me it’s a huge compliment. I enjoy hearing other people’s perspectives. It makes me laugh.

BIG STUDIO OR INDIE, THEY’RE ALL IMPORTANT TO DIRECTOR/PRODUCER JOHN ALBANIS

Education is a good thing but, consider that education alone is not indicative of the ability to master something; it’s a springboard to jump into the race. Specifically, when it comes to artistic endeavors, vision and mastery of skills easily defeats the knowledge base of how something “should” work. One can understand painting but it doesn’t make you a painter. A knowledge of the complexities of music theory does not make one a songwriter. Film school does not make you an accomplished cinematographer. While scholarly endeavors may get you in the ballpark, they won’t insure that you will make the team. Of all the aforementioned art forms, film is the newest and thus the idea of attending film school was not available until recently. The pioneers who crafted this art form and by whose hands it evolved were the men and women who learned “on the job.” Considering the fact that film has permeated almost every culture and region of the planet, they did their jobs quite well. Following in the footsteps of these giants is John Albanis. This producer/director had not planned on entering the film industry (moving from Calgary to the UK to pursue rock stardom) but made an artistic switch when he discovered he had a natural skill set that lent itself to this medium. With no formal academic film training, John learned from those he worked with; those who recognized his ability for accelerated learning. Years later, he has cultivated quite an impressive career which rests on both huge blockbuster productions as well as carefully and emotionally crafter indie art films. Feature Films, TV movies, music videos, even recording studios make up the eclectic life of this immensely talented Canadian filmmaker.

John Albanis’s work on major studio films is instantly recognizable and is not confined to simply one genre…unless that genre is “successful.” Some films perform well at the box office and also have a second life on downloads and streaming services, as is the case the Hector and the Search for Happiness. As Co-Producer on this 2014 film starring Simon Pegg, John had the herculean task of taking the production across the planet to locations which included: Canada, the UK, South Africa, China, USA, India, and Germany. The Story and its locations are entertaining and seamless, something which Albanis is quite proud of achieving.

Contributing his full range of abilities to the film Psychic Driving, John was director, producer, and writer of this Film Noir. Inspired by the great political thrillers from the 1970s films like Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View, All the Presidents Men and based around the CIA mind control program in the 1950’s called Project MK-Ultra (a secret program that ran experiments on human subjects, often without their knowledge), Psychic Driving’s theme was perfectly suited for the Film Noir genre. It also allowed Albanis to indulge his creative side to great length, exhibiting his multiple talents. Utilizing his connections in the film industry allowed for a quick and impressive production schedule. John relates, “When I work on studio films, I build such great relationships with the crews whom I work with. One thing I quickly learned is that there are so many talented artists who are on the verge of breaking. In the case of Psychic Driving, I had recently completed working on Miramax Films’ Shall We Dance. This was pretty early in my career; I was a director’s assistant at that point. But the director, Peter Chelsom, had me very involved creatively so I worked closely with all department heads. I forged relationships with (main Camera Operator) Peter Rosenfeld and (Art Director) Sue Chan. I had written Psychic Driving shortly after the studio film wrapped and I gave the script to both of them. They immediately signed on as Director of Photography and Production Designer respectively. Since we all have contacts in the studio system, we were each able to bring those resources to this small, indie film. That’s why it has such ambitious production values.”

Not content with Feature Films or Indie Films, John also lent his production talents to a series of highly successful made for TV films (for CBS) starring Tom Selleck. Jesse Stone: Stone Cold, Jesse Stone: Thin Ice, and Jesse Stone: No Remorse were all presented in a period of five years.

As he prepares for the next obvious progression in his career, Albanis confirms, “Los Angeles is still the heart and soul of the film and television industry; it’s where all the main players are and where all the deals are being struck. I’m transitioning from being a hired gun producer/director into developing my own projects from the ground up and Los Angeles is the best place to do that. Last year, I purchased the TV rights to a book called The Mirror Thief, which I’m developing with Peter Chelsom to direct into an 8-hr series. It’s a mind-bending thriller that follows interweaving narratives of three driven men all connected by the alchemical possibility of a mysterious book, and shifts from 16th century Venice, Italy— where famed glassmakers perfected one of the world’s most wondrous inventions, the mirror (an object of fearful fascination)— to the seedy Venice Beach waterfront of the 1950’s, to the glitzy trappings of the Venetian casino in 2003 Las Vegas.”

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KEN KARPEL: DIRECTING FOR NETFLIX, CAR COMPANIES, AND EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN

Eclectic. This may be the most appropriate word to describe the work and life of Australian director Ken Karpel. The background, experiences, and influences that led to the work of this multiple award-winning director is the plot to a movie in itself. While his early years are exotic and full of character (sometimes ridiculously so), the mixture has created one of the Australian industry’s most unique and successful directors. Karpel’s creativity has manifested numerous successful and lauded commercial campaigns for internationally recognized companies such as: Nestlé’s, Kellogg’s, Jeep, Adidas, Hyundai, and countless others. While clients sometimes raise an eyebrow about his methods, the results are undeniable. These achievements and awards include: ‘Best Integrated Campaign’ at the 2014 PromaxBDA Global Excellence Awards (Jeep); 2014 ASTRA Industry Excellence Award for Best Consumer Advertising Campaign (Nutri-Grain), 2014 Best Brand Integrated Spot at PromaxBDA ANZ Awards (Kellogg’s), a 2013 PromaxBDA Global Excellence Award for ‘Best Integrated Campaign’ (Topdeck), 2013 PromaxBDA ANZ Award in the ‘Best Integrated Campaign’ Category (Adidas), a 2012 Promaxbda ANZ Award for Best Sponsor Integrated Spot (V-Rentals), and many others.

The Award-winning and world travelling director is a long way from his early days growing up in Ukraine. His most recent professional ventures prove that Ken is always on the move and looking for a new challenge. A boy from Kharkov isn’t the most obvious choice to helm a documentary for Netflix about an Australian Hip Hop group but Karpel has used his unique upbringing and perspective to bring insight to all his work, no mater the subject. He grew up speaking Russian and watching…well, non-age appropriate films. He recalls, “I used to lie to my dad about sleeping in daycare so I could watch the R-rated Jean-Claude Van Damme opus ‘Bloodsport’… I was three at the time. That was the first movie I remember watching. The second was ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ and the third was John Waters’ ‘Cry Baby’. I did not watch any age appropriate TV until I moved to Sydney, Australia when I was five. Having newly emigrated to Australia, Ken’s parents were focused on work and providing for their family while Ken was fixated on film and TV. When his grandparents forced him to stop watching TV to go out and play with the other neighborhood kids, Karpel used the opportunity to recreate his favorite films with these make shift actors. He relates, “We watched Karate Kid and started practicing karate on each other in the park; after Home Alone we developed an intricate plan to catch burglars that ended up in me ruining my grandparents couch; following Happy Gilmore we all became interested in Subway and golf.”

Ken moved from film fan to participant at age seven when, after being inspired by Goodfellas (yes, at age seven), he immediately began writing films about his family and friends, complete with storyboards. He cites Quentin Tarantino with being the first person whom he noticed with three credits in Reservoir Dogs: actor, writer, director. He began to investigate what a director’s role was and study its intricacies.

Years later, when asked what it is about the profession he loves, Ken states, “I love every aspect of it. Pre-production is great because you’re figuring it out and that’s the best it will be. There’s no compromise yet. I love playing it all out in my head over and over again trying to visualize it before it’s even shot. Being on set is fantastic because there’s so many people there trying to achieve the same goal. I love the problem solving aspect of it. You’ve thought about this moment for so long and now something’s gone wrong…or it’s not working out the way you thought and everyone’s looking at you to solve it. I love that high-pressure environment and adrenaline; solving problems and collaborating with everyone for this common goal. There’s nothing like the moment when something magical happens that you didn’t anticipate. Where the camera moves in a direction and the light hits it a certain way or the performer does something you didn’t plan. I just love finding things in the moment. It is exciting to me. I also enjoy being in control of every single element in the frame. You’re creating a reality that you’re in charge of and it’s representative of your perceptions. You’re making something you hope people will relate to but it’s really a part of yourself. You’re putting yourself out there.”

One of Ken’s most recent projects is his work with Collider & Particle films. The production is a mini-documentary to promote Baz Luhrmann’s Netflix TV show “The Get Down”. The content piece follows Australian Hip Hop act ‘Horror Show’ as they prepare to perform their biggest show. It looks at the birth of hip hop in the Bronx during the 70s, and draws a line between that period and its continued influence on artists today, some 40 years later. Karpel envisioned a documentary in which the audience would be swept up in the artist’s world and experience it through their eyes. He would shoot each environment in one unbroken take. The camera would create a pace and perspective that which enables the viewer to feel as if they are in the room alongside the group. Once they begin their show on stage, when they’re in their element is when the real excitement of the concert is communicated. This took some convincing.

Ken concedes, “I’m glad we were able to convince the Artists and their management to let us shoot the live show on stage with them. We needed an up close and personal view of the show from the artist’s perspective, not the audience. Their whole tour, and thus their story, was building up to this show and from a narrative point of view we needed to be there on stage with them as close to their faces as possible. We ended up shooting so close to them you could see the sweat dripping from their brow.”

Rachael Ford-Davies of Collider & Particle Films declares, “We represent some of the best commercial directors in the business and based on his previous work, I knew Ken was the right person for the job. His high-energy visual storytelling places him in a unique position on our roster of directors at Collider & Particle Films.”

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Working with a totally different type of Australian group, Ken created a series of emotive and energetic spots that follows nine different people in the Australian Defence Force, juxtaposing their work lives with their personal lives. A total of nine 60 second spots were created. Revealing the humanity in these individuals, a series of match cuts matched the personal lives of these individuals with their Army ones. For instance, a helicopter pilot puts his helmet on to ride his bike to work and there is a match cut to him putting his helmet on in his helicopter at work; an infantry man is cutting up ingredients for a meal he’s cooking at home followed by a match cut that to him assembling his rifle at work. Always searching for an emotional aspect in a production, Ken comments, “It was important to have emotion and empathy for these people but also portray their work as energetic and fast paced. To achieve this, I interviewed each person off-camera and added their voice over to the images; this way they’re telling their own stories.  While shooting I realized that we had a lot of high energy action shots but to instill this empathy we needed a balance. I was getting a lot of very emotional stories (in the voice over interviews) that wouldn’t just work over fast-paced imagery. I decided to start shooting pensive moments with each of our characters where we see them take a quiet, reflective moment. Most of these moments were improvised in environments we found on the day: a locker room, a kitchen at sunrise, a bench following a heavy workout. The result gave the spots everything it needed: a high energy visual piece, with emotional tonal shifts that reflected the character’s difficult journey to get to where they are.

The best indicator that one is doing great work is when others seek you out your abilities and talents. For Karpel, this came in the form of his signing for representation in Australia with Collider & Particle, Target pictures in the Czech republic, and most recently Bakery Films in Germany.  As Anna Stolzenberg (Sales Executive at Bakery films) recalls, “At Bakery Films we had been aware of Ken’s work for some time. In November last year I contacted him to see if he’d be interested in discussing representation with us. Serendipitously he was in Prague directing a commercial. I decided to travel from Germany to Prague to meet him. I was expecting Ken to be older, but was surprise at how young he actually was. Over a long lunch we discussed the possibility of Ken being represented by us in the German market. A couple of weeks later Ken signed with us. Ken is an extremely talented director whose work defies advertising categories. He is able to do emotive, authentic and energetic storytelling pieces, comedic spots, visually stunning pieces and pretty much everything in between. The through line of all his work however are honest performances, a striking visual style, authenticity, heart and humor. It’s amazing to me that someone his age has already worked with so many international brands and I see him becoming one of the most in demand directors working around the world.”

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Art Director-Motion Graphics Designer Ilya Tselyutin Thriving in Hollywood

Art Director-Motion Graphics Designer Ilya Tselyutin works in one of the most fascinating, fast moving and over looked fields in modern media. Motion Graphics is a constantly evolving, creatively fertile niche that entails creating everything from eye-popping feature film title sequences to innovative television commercial applications. It’s a complex mix of graphic design, animation and cutting edge technology that requires innate resourcefulness, meticulous attention to detail and the ability to bring life to  a very broad spectrum of images—qualities which the Russian-born Tselyutin has no shortage of.

 

“While studying computer science at university, I developed interest in 3D graphics,” Tselyutin said. “I was always curious how this technology worked. At the same time I started looking at works by some famous graphic designers and learned about typography. I wanted to bring all of this together – 3D graphics, animation and design. Also, I drew my inspiration from title sequences from Hollywood movies, as well as the special effects in sci-fi movies.”

 

A painstaking, gifted craftsman whose outstanding work has been recognized with international awards—Silver winner for Art Direction at Cannes Corporate Media & TV Awards, and a Silver Win for Graphic Design/Animation at PromaxBDA, both in 2013—Tselyutin has distinguished himself with an impressive roster of career achievements. All this has led him to the field’s epicenter, Hollywood, where he enjoys a position at the prestigious Troika Design Group, a top branding and marketing agency that specializes in working with entertainment and media companies

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“Troika is one of the most notable companies in the industry,” Tselyutin said. “I had learned about it a while ago and they were looking for a lead motion graphics designer to bring the quality of 3D graphics to the next level. Paul Brodie, the Managing Director, was closely following my work and invited me to join the company in 2016, where I am currently working as Art Director/Motion Graphics Designer.

 

At Troika’s Design Department, Tselyutin has successfully undertaken jobs for a disparate series of high profile clients. “We have a very busy schedule with plenty of projects coming my way every day,” Tselyutin said  “The most interesting projects so far have been for AT&T Sports Network and ESPN College Basketball. The video for AT&T included working with the client’s static footage. As a lead designer on this project I suggested using a special technology in Cinema 4D software to cut the static footage into several pieces an then project them onto 3D models, and the result made both the team and the client happy.”

 

Tselyutin’s gift for surpassing expectations is a result of his widely varied cultural background and educational experience. With a Bachelors of Arts in Information Technologies and New Media from the Kuban State University, Krasnodar, Russia and a resume of jobs all over Europe, Tselyutin brings a refreshing international perspective to any project assigned him.

 

“While I was studying computer science, I started working at the local TV channel as a designer discovering the world of 3D graphics,” Tselyutin said. “I developed interest in design, typography and animation and after graduation, I moved to Moscow to work at the national largest TV network Channel One Russia, where I had the privilege to learn from the best and most experienced broadcast designers in the country.”
 

“My work brought me around the world,” Tselyutin said. “For example, I produced a 3D mapping show in at the Technology University of Mangalore, India. In 2013 I moved to work at VUCX creative agency in Cologne, Germany. Working and living in Europe with its variety of art museums, exhibitions and strong school of design was a great experience that helped me expand my portfolio and explore motion graphics even further.”

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For the driven, ambitious Tselyutin, whose formidable resume is already packed with enough accomplishments to stand as the full measure of a professional career, it is only the beginning. “I am eager to continue my personal development as an artist, 3D professional and art director while growing professionally within the company,” he said. “I see myself working on large-scale commercially successful projects.”

“My motto is: be curious, be professional, never give up.”